The Pope and the Porcupine

opera-scappi-scullyWhen it’s soft, eat the stone and throw the porcupine out.
Old saying about tough meat.

Chef Bartolomeo Scappi (1500-1577) cooked for two popes (Pius V, for one), as well as for several cardinals. Fortunately for posterity, he also wrote a fat, hands-on tome about  cooking and serving food in Renaissance Italy.

Terence Scully’s invaluable translation of Scappi’s Opera (The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi 1570) is the first such rendering in English, making Scappi’s work accessible to many Latin-impaired researchers. Illustrations of period kitchens add great value to this book with its 1000-plus recipes.

Like Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq in his Kitāb al-Tabīkh (Arabic version HERE), Scappi begins his Opera with a young, inexperienced cook, giving his apprentice Giovanni the word about cooking in a “Discourse That Sir Bartolomeo Holds with His Apprentice Giovanni.” For one thing, this “Discourse” teaches modern readers how to tell if a cheese is bad, that is,  from the point of view of a person living in the sixteenth century, not a home economist from the twentieth. The two are not mutually inclusive.

Other valuable material abounds, particularly recipes for foods likely never to be eaten by modern readers.

Porcupine, for one …

porcupine-23 Porco spinoso. Spiny pig. Quill pig.  Scappi places the porcupine in the same family as the hedgehog. Both do curl up into balls when frightened, but that doesn’t mean they’re related. (They’re not. Porcupines are rodents.)

Like the man (or woman) who first downed an oyster, the man (or woman) who first cooked a porcupine probably knew hunger like a mother knows her child’s face from eyelashes to chin. And Scappi includes a number of recipes for porcupine, not indicating whether or not any pope actually ate it:

89. Various ways to cook porcupine flesh

Get a porcupine in August because at that time, owing to its feeding, it is very fat, even though its flesh has a less bad odour between October and January. After the animal has been killed let the flesh hang, in winter for four days and in summer for a day and a half. When it is skinned, divide it crosswise and sprinkle the hind half, without blanching it, with the same condiments [pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg], with salt, as were sprinkled on the goat’s leg in Recipe 84. Stud it with some cloves of garlic and whole cloves and and rosemary tips to take away its bad smell. Then set it to roast on a spit, catching the drippings. When it is done serve it up hot, dressed with a garnish of must syrup, rose vinegar, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and the dripping.

You can also roast the animal whole, or do it braised in an oven, if it is stuffed in the way the goat kid is stuffed in recipe 77. With the forequarters you can make a larded broth the way it is done with a goat in recipe 85. Moreover, after those forequarters are boiled and cut up into pieces you can sauté them in melted rendered fat and beaten onions. You can serve that with verjuice, pepper and cinnamon over top. None of its viscera, except for the liver, can be prepared for eating; when the liver is fresh it can be done like the goat’s in Recipe 86.

Other porcupine ephemera appear in Opera, including a recipe variation using porcupine in a pie instead of guinea pig.  Large porcupines need to be skinned, according to Scappi, but cooks can simply singe off the hair of small ones.

Scappi’s Opera provides much more, of course, than just recipes for creatures we never eat. Black-grape sauce, menus, pies of various sorts including crostatas that would be right at home in books by Michele Scicolone or Giuliano Bugialli — the range of material can overwhelm the reader at times.

It’s difficult to imagine a pope eating a porcupine, that’s for sure.  Pius V certainly didn’t leave a single word about the experience.

But people in Italy clearly reverenced porcupines.  Maybe not in the pot, but there’s always art …


© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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